Talking with An architect whose partner is nature

Name: Stan Field
Age: 69
City: Palo Alto
Position: Principal, Field Architecture

J.: Sustainable architecture — that’s what you’re known for. What is that?

Stan Field: A holistic approach. Everything is connected. Climate, energy, water, air, wind and geology — all of these things are the forces that shape architecture and environment. I’m really talking about environments rather than specific buildings or structures. It’s more about shaping the environment that belongs to a bigger ecosystem and ecology.

J.: You were the chief architect of Jerusalem in the early 1980s, and later had your own firm there. And you’re a native of South Africa. So why did you relocate to Silicon Valley in 1990?

SF: America is a highly technological place. I wanted to be at the cutting of this new revolution that was unfolding. But to my amazement, Palo Alto was backward when it came to architecture, as compared to technology, where it was at the forefront. But it was almost as if it didn’t matter. People were in their garages discovering things … so the built environment was secondary. But it’s catching up now. I arrived here 23 years ago, and I like to feel that I’ve actually contributed to this awakening.

Stan Field

J.: You’re involved in some design projects in the Bay Area Jewish community?

SF: Yes, we have two synagogue projects here in Palo Alto — Chabad (of Greater South Bay) and Kol Emeth. We are now entering the design phase for Kol Emeth, and it’s very exciting. We’re proposing using rammed earth construction (a building technique that involves making walls by compressing a damp earth mixture of clay, gravel and sand into a mold). It’s an ancient technology that people have been using recently as a way of building sustainably, economically and responsibly. We’re using an ancient technique with new insight.

J.: Your 37-year-old son, Jess, is your partner at the firm. What is it like working together?

SF: Jess is amazing. I’m the one who has a lot of history and experience. I’m more intuitive, while Jess is more logical. He has a left and a right brain. I think I’ve just got a right brain. When we work together, it’s as though we’ve extended the generational dimension. I have a foot in each generation now. I can see backward and I can see forward because Jess is my partner.

J.: Your projects are breathtaking. The website beautifully shows many examples, including the award-winning Ubuntu Centre in a black township in South Africa. What was your inspiration on that project?

SF: It’s more than just a community center. It really addresses the situation there. AIDS is a huge problem and a big stigma. People don’t want to be tested. So I saw how people walk across the township; they don’t drive much, they don’t have cars. I saw the footsteps in the dirt, and I said, “What if we took these pathways and actually created a building around them, so this became a building to go through rather than to go to?” And that’s what happened. People are on these pathways and finding themselves in a building … They feel they can slip in and be tested for AIDS … it’s helping to de-stigmatize it, and it’s working.

J.: Is it true you’re a Jewish surfer dude?

SF: I’m originally from Cape Town. I’m a coastal person, and I like to surf. I lived in Half Moon Bay for 10 years, because I wanted to surf. I still surf, but not as much as I’d like. There have been some times when my trying to be heroic has led me out of my depths. For instance, a few years ago, my brother challenged me to go surfing with him at Davenport (Santa Cruz County), and I wiped out and nearly drowned. That was one time in my life when I recited the Shema.


“Talking with …” is a J. feature that focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting.

Renee Ghert-Zand